For the sake of his children, widower John Streb is looking ahead while reflecting on the past.
Life was good for John and Chelsea Streb and their five children. Apart from work and school activities, Chelsea often planned weekend getaways—camping, cruising on their pontoon boat, and trips to one of Central Florida’s many theme parks.
Then tragedy struck in 2019 when Chelsea was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She passed away on February 13th, 2021.
“Everything pretty much came to a standstill,” John recalls. “We each grieved in our own way and kept going on. I tried to do stuff my wife liked to do. I made sure I took weekends off and worked normal hours during the week to spend time with the kids.”
Three of the children—Jonathan, 27, John, 26, and Kyle, 23—were already on their own when their mother became ill. Ryan, 14, and Sara, 13, are still living at home. They are among the 3 million children under the age of 18 who are living with a single dad. Like John, 6 percent of all single fathers are widowed, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
John owns a business installing burglar alarms and commercial fire alarm systems. Though Ryan and Sara share some of the household duties, such as cleaning and taking care of the animals, Sara credits her father for keeping things going the way her mother did.
“He takes us to school every day,” Sara offers. “He does the cleaning and shopping, and he takes us to do stuff our mom took us to do. The biggest change is not being able to talk to someone about girl stuff ,” she adds, giggling. “My dad just has no idea at all.”
Unknowingly, John has become a role model for his son Ryan, who claims he wants to go into the family business someday. Ryan also says he and his dad enjoy role-playing board games and monster fights on the computer.
“We like Dungeons & Dragons,” Ryan shares. “I play the warrior and he’s usually the dungeon master or necromancer or wizard.”
“My dad’s actually been doing a really good job with cooking,” Ryan adds. “He’s been making a lot of meals, trying new things like meatloaf, steak, hamburgers and bratwurst.”
But experiments in the kitchen don’t always run smoothly, admits John.
“I discovered you can’t put any kind of glassware in the oven,” he says, laughing. “You have to make sure it’s Pyrex, otherwise it’s gonna blow up. Mine shattered and it ruined the oven. I was making meatloaf and had been watching it. We left the kitchen and when we came back, smoke was coming out of the oven. There was meatloaf and sauce all over the inside. We ended up going out to dinner that night. And I had to replace the oven.”
Chelsea’s aunt, Mary Piccin, has only praises for John and the way he took on the role of a single dad.
“He and I talked a lot about the grief and impending responsibilities,” Piccin reflects. “He never complained. He always managed to be where he needed to be. He just was exhausted all the time, but he always coped. As Chelsea became more and more ill, one could almost say he graduated into being a single father.”
But John didn’t always have to handle things alone. Chelsea’s mom, Diana Burke, moved in while her daughter was ill.
“It added a little bit of continuity for the kids to have their grandmother there,” notes Piccin. “We didn’t know how quickly Chelsea would decline. Both Chelsea and Diana got COVID and survived. John had a lot on his plate. I have never seen a man more stalwart and moving on, day-today, taking care of things. My sister-in-law was an invalid. John treated her like his own mother. She died in November of COPD. When she passed, it was doubly hard on them.” John claims he simply moved on, step by step.
“I just kept going,” he maintains. “I had to concentrate on the kids and my business. When my wife got sick, my entire life’s focus became her. Holidays, especially Christmas, were a big thing. I never had to worry about buying gifts before. I just supplied the money and by the end of the year we had Christmas done.”
Chelsea’s mom also helped with such things before she died, he adds.
“This year, I’ll have to fi gure it out or start buying gift s early,” John notes. “With five kids, I’ll have to plan ahead and budget through the year.”
John’s advice to other fathers embarking on single parenthood?
“There’s no reason you can’t do it,” he insists. “It takes some patience and compassion, but you’re just gonna have to let some things go. That’s why some people have such a problem with it, they want to control every aspect. Sometimes, you just gotta go with it.” OS